Lowering the Bar

It wasn't surprising that during the fight over John Ashcroft's nomination for attorney general, one side seemed especially eager to discuss his putative racism while the other side eschewed the matter. But it was surprising that his defenders were the eager ones. "I have never known John Ashcroft to be a racist," proclaimed Oklahoma Representative J.C. Watts, who testified on Ashcroft's behalf. "It is not pleasant for me to hear terms such as racism applied to you," sniffed Bob Smith, sometime-Republican senator of New Hampshire, with a nod to his old colleague. "Branding a good man with the ugly slur of 'racist' without justification or cause is intolerable," Missouri Republican Kenny Hulshof told the Senate Judiciary Committee.

But who, exactly, was branding Ashcroft a racist? "Let me be very clear about one thing," Democratic Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Patrick Leahy announced when he gaveled to order the first day of hearings. "This is not about whether Senator Ashcroft is racist, anti-Catholic, anti-Mormon, or anti-anything else. Those of us who have worked with him in the Senate do not make that charge." He was echoed, over the following three days, by most of Ashcroft's chief critics, including Senators Charles Schumer ("You know, I don't believe Senator Ashcroft is a racist"), Joseph Biden ("I find you a man of honesty and integrity"), Dick Durbin ("I have not accused Senator Ashcroft of racial prejudice, nor will I"), and, for that matter, Ronnie White, the African-American jurist whom Ashcroft had once defamed as being "pro-criminal" ("I don't think John Ashcroft is a racist"). Indeed, even the most vehement Democrats seemed muzzled as they tried to explain what, exactly, was so objectionable about this honest, experienced, nonracist man of integrity.

How have we arrived at such a pass? There was, after all, a distinct Claude Raines quality to the debate. The Republicans claimed to be shocked, shocked, that Ashcroft "would have to endure comments about racism and segregation," as Smith complained. But the party of Lincoln, as Republicans are fond of calling themselves these days, has become the party of Strom Thurmond and Jesse Helms. And therein lies the problem.

The Republican Party is not demonstrably racist; nor is conservatism. Nor are Republican politicians generally; nor are Republican voters generally. But the electoral history of the GOP over the past four decades has largely been one of assimilation: first drawing large numbers of voters with deep racial animus (along with many unreconstructed racists) from the Democratic Party in the South, then absorbing that bloc into the GOP's political base, and, finally, finding tactful ways to keep them there while simultaneously appealing to other, more tolerant voters. And it's that last part--trying to attract racially progressive moderates without losing the party's racially antagonistic constituency--that has so confused the essential question hovering around the Ashcroft hearings: What does it take to be a racist in politics today?

There was a time when the Democratic Party tolerated people more objectionable than John Ashcroft among its own ranks. But most of them began to leave during the 1960s and 1970s, disgusted with the party's embrace of the civil rights movement. Seeing an opportunity, the Republican Party rolled out the welcome mat via Richard Nixon's infamous Southern Strategy--that is, deliberate appeals to reactionary southern voters. (Once the South was placed on the road to Republicanization, GOP strategists like Lee Atwater crafted a complementary Northern Strategy, which involved provoking the simmering tension between blacks and working-class white ethnics and dislodging the latter from their traditional berth in the Democratic Party.) The Southern Strategy remained standard practice for Republicans even into the 1980s. Back then, Republicans offered far more than speeches to Bob Jones University, the now infamous institution that equates Catholicism with Satanism and only recently ended its ban on interracial dating. In 1982 the Reagan administration actually joined the university in a lawsuit aimed at granting tax-exempt status to racially discriminatory--that is, racist--private schools and colleges.

But by the mid-1980s, changing public mores accompanied a new political generation that came to the fore; open alliance with explicitly racist groups, institutions, and causes became verboten. In its place, a certain political mélange began to emerge, a kind of code language: fervent support for "states' rights," veneration of Jefferson Davis and the antebellum culture, and vilification of Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr. (always as a philanderer, never as a civil rights leader per se). Usefully, the code was officially, explicitly nonracist. When Trent Lott gave an interview to The Southern Partisan in 1984 and was asked what he meant when he told the Sons of Confederate Veterans that the "the spirit of Jefferson Davis lives in the 1984 Republican platform," his answer made no mention whatsoever of race or slavery. "The platform we had in Dallas, the 1984 Republican platform, all the ideas we supported there--from tax policy, to foreign policy; from individual rights, to neighborhood security--are things that Jefferson Davis believed in."

Thus, the code didn't just provide cover for erstwhile segregationists like Jesse Helms. It also brought into the mainstream a constitutionally and morally corrupt political culture, giving national Republicans a palatable way to pander to racists, quasi-racists, and crypto-racists. The treatment of Klansman-turned-Louisiana-state-representative David Duke at the end of the 1980s illustrates this strategy. Officially and at the national level, George Bush's "kindler, gentler" GOP formally disavowed Duke in 1989, a mere year after it had deployed race-mongering Willie Horton ads against Michael Dukakis. But at the state level, Louisiana Republican committee chair Billy Nungesser quashed a motion to censure Duke--a move encouraged by Republican National Committee chair Lee Atwater on the theory that taking action against Duke would only stoke his image. The real problem, of course, was how the censure might have alienated Duke's constituents.

But by 1994, this kind of pandering reached a saturation point for the Republicans. That year, GOP candidates in the South cleared out most of the conservative Democrats who had clung, mostly by virtue of incumbency, to what were essentially Republican districts. The remaining southern Democrats, for the most part, depended heavily on black voters and white transplants from the North. Nationally, the GOP's racial wedge strategy risked alienating centrist, tolerant white suburbanites in swing states. And in any case, there were no more racists left to pander to. They were all voting for Republicans anyway.

Part of what made Bush's choice of Ashcroft seem so foolish was that Bush and his advisers seemed to have pretty much figured out that racial wedgery no longer worked, but Ashcroft obviously hadn't. As governor of Texas, Bush--baby boomer, tolerant guy--learned how to talk to the party's southern base in a political language reminiscent, on racial matters, of Rockefeller Republicanism. Ashcroft seemed to have missed the memo. Whereas Helms, Lott, House Majority Leader Dick Armey, and Senator Phil Gramm of Texas gave rebel-yell interviews to The Southern Partisan back in, respectively, 1984, 1984, 1990, and 1983, Ashcroft gave his in 1998, by which time a Republican senator with presidential aspirations should have learned the new etiquette.

Ashcroft, however, quickly learned something else: What it takes these days for a charge of racism to stick, it turns out, is an admission. You have to be a self-identified racist. But even under the old, pre-Bush etiquette (that is, the code), there are no self-identified racist Republicans. There are just southern politicians who believe that Jefferson Davis was an American patriot and that Martin Luther King, Jr., was not. Unfortunately, there aren't any rules--in the Senate confirmation hearings or in American politics generally--for openly challenging the substance of those beliefs. So the debate over John Ashcroft revolved entirely around the question of whether or not he was a good person--that is, whether he bore any personal ill will toward blacks.

You could see the Democrats struggling with this. "What I couldn't understand," Joe Biden stammered to Ashcroft, "is why, right after this, and this is called to your attention, you just don't say, 'Boom, boom, boom. I should have never got a degree from Bob Jones University; I should have never had this interview.' I mean, as you all know, this place loves contrition. I mean, I've had my share of having to do it. We all make mistakes. But I don't get it. I don't get it." The Republicans did get it. If racism was strictly a question of character, then the debate over Ashcroft would pit their word against ... nobody's. Because as both Democrats and Republicans seemed to agree, John Ashcroft was a good person. And good people, after all, are not racists. And as both Democrats and Republicans seemed to agree, John Ashcroft was a good person. "I had a good, long talk with John about civil rights laws," President Bush explained after meeting with Ashcroft before the hearings. "This is a good man; he's got a good heart."

But what's in Ashcroft's heart should never have been the issue. One imagines that there are more than a few Democrats in Congress who, to put it plainly, just don't like black people. But there are only a very small number of Democrats in Congress who consistently vote against legislation near and dear to black Americans. Similarly, there are no Republicans in Congress--not John Ashcroft, not Jesse Helms, not anyone--who have gone on Crossfire to declare that whites are the master race. But there are an awful lot of Republicans who, like Ashcroft, are deliberately indifferent to the cause of civil rights, even on such nominally nonideological issues as black disenfranchisement. The problem is that the language of race in America is too cramped to adequately describe this brand of indifference. Terms like racist, bigot, and Nazi can't suffice; they imply questions of character and intent that are unanswerable.

In politics a functional definition of racism is ultimately more useful than Bush's what's-in-your-heart definition. The problem, after all, is not that Ashcroft embraces Bob Jones University's racism and anti-Catholicism, but that he was more than willing to benefit--as it must have seemed at the time--from BJU's racism and anti-Catholicism. The problem is not that distorting Ronnie White's record is itself a racist act, but that Ashcroft knew that casting a black judge as "pro-criminal" and "soft" on crime would cater to the worst biases of certain Missouri voters. The problem is not that Ashcroft thinks black people shouldn't be allowed to vote, but that in this day and age he seeks political reward in catering to people--readers and admirers of The Southern Partisan, for example--who believe the South should not have lost the Civil War. For a United States senator, pandering to racists is worse than being a racist. For a United States attorney general, it is--or ought to be--unacceptable. ¤